It is a paradox that every dictator has climbed to power on the ladder of free speech. Immediately on attaining power each dictator has suppressed all free speech except his own.” – Herbert Hoover
The Mahinda Rajapaksa government for the past few months has been engaged in a constant search for solutions to a rising wave of crises within the government. External reasons like an opposition that is gathering momentum due to the government’s own disabilities and government policy statements made by public officials who do not have the mandate to utter such declarations have added to the fast eroding popularity of the once blue-eyed Rajapaksa government.
The post war exuberance of the government is now on the decline and attempts to keep at least some of it alive through mega development projects carried out on a high interest commercial loans have also failed as the masses grapple for their daily existence.
It was with disappointment that many persons viewed the photographs of the newly opened Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport being converted into a tourist destination. A UNP provincial councilor from the Uva Province participating in a political debate on a private television station showed on air the photographs of people visiting the Mattala airport as part of a site seeing trip and taking photographs outside the airport. He also showed a photograph of a deserted check-in counter at the airport.
Even the governing party members who participated in the debate ended up borrowing the pictures from the opposition councilor to have a second look at the photographs.
It is in this backdrop that President Mahinda Rajapaksa last week visited China on a four-day official visit where he signed several bi-lateral agreements covering various areas.
Chine is to now fund the construction of the Colombo-Jaffna expressway among several other road projects. In short, Sri Lanka has secured additional loans of close to US$ 2.2 billion for projects, which eventually the general public of the country would have to bear by way of increases in taxes and fines.
The Rajapaksa government throughout last week informed of the achievements during the President’s visit to China.
However, the UNP managed to spoil the Rajapaksa government’s plan at glory by releasing its draft constitution for the views of the public and other political parties.
Prepared under the theme of re-establishing a people’s sovereignty, the UNP’s draft constitution states a future UNP government would abolish the executive presidency.
It is the first time the UNP has made such a declaration given that the executive presidency was a creation of a past UNP government.
The post of President is to be replaced by a head of state and the powers currently vested with the executive presidency would be divided between the head of state, prime minister and the Speaker’s Council.
A Constitutional Court is also to be established to interpret the Constitution and examine constitutionality of bills.
The UNP has also pledged to limit the Cabinet of ministers to 25 including the prime minister. Opposition and UNP Leader Ranil Wickremesinghe releasing the draft Constitution said that it is now time for the people to be given back their sovereignty.
However, the UNP’s move to present a new draft Constitution to replace the existing 1978 Constitution is witnessed as a move forward by opposition political parties.
“To acknowledge shortcomings in the current system even if it was initially mooted by your party and to propose methods to resolve the issues is a positive step,” a senior SLFP minister said.
Wickremesinghe who is now engaged in prepping his campaign for the next Presidential election has now set a solid footing in society with the draft Constitution. The proposed Constitution is likely to be the main policy document of the UNP at the next presidential election whether it is held in 2014 or 2015.
The delay in getting an amendment passed to minimize the term of office of a President from five to four years would result in the President calling for an election in 2015.
Nevertheless, Wickremesinghe is now confident in moving ahead with reforming the party making new strategies to prepare for the next round of elections.
While the UNP’s show last week disturbed the Rajapaksa government, it also managed to gain some strength by resolving to some extent the growing dissention of the JHU towards the governing party. The party last week handed over to parliament the private member’s motion that sought the abolition of the provincial council system in the country.
Given the crisis that befell the Rajapaksa regime with governing party ministers saying openly that they would not support such a bill, the government stood exposed to humility without a two-thirds majority to approve the proposed legislation.
Attempts by several decision making members of the Rajapaksa government to canvass for votes among the JVP and UNP MPs to build the required two thirds majority to pass the legislation in parliament failed.
However, following lengthy discussions with the JHU members, Rajapaksa government managed to get the party’s consent to the amendment to the Registration of Voters Act despite its call to abolish the provincial councils system in the country. General Secretary of the JHU, Minister Champika Ranawaka has said the passage of the amendment would give voting rights to displaced persons.
Explaining that if the bill passed, it would give the displaced people in the North the right to vote at the upcoming Northern Provincial Council (NPC) polls, Ranawaka said the party would support the bill when it is tabled in parliament on June 6.
“Although we have continuously said that democracy would be eroded if elections to the NPC are held before all the displaced persons are resettled, we decided that the Bill should be passed as it would provide some relief to those displaced from the North after 1983,” he was quoted in the media as saying.
“Still, it would not compensate the displaced people for the lands they had lost prior to being displaced. Therefore, while supporting the Bill, we will push the government to address the needs of the Sinhalese and Muslim people, who had lost their lands as far back as 1977,” Ranawaka has added. However, the Rajapaksa government is of the view that getting the amendments to the voter registration laws would send positive vibes to the country as well as the international community that the government is keen on holding elections to the Northern Province.
The announcement last week that UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Navi Pillay would be visiting the country from August 25-31 made the Rajapaksa government realize that it was once again time to pull the perennial rabbit (in the form of the Northern Provincial Council election) out of the hat.Pillay is to submit a report on Sri Lanka at the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) sessions as part of the resolution adopted at the Council this March. The Rajapaksa government believes that passing the legislation on voter registration would show the government’s interest in holding the Northern Provincial Council elections while a court case filed against the holding of the elections in the North by another government affiliated party could be used as a delaying tactic to holding the election. Unfortunately for the Rajapaksa government its actions are now quite transparent to the people.
Amidst the inter government issues; the clashes within the SLFP are also on an all time high. Senior SLFP members are now openly making statements of the deterioration faced by the party. They lament that there are in fact no powerful SLFP members within the government.
“A majority of the government members who are holding power are not SLFPers, but those who defected from opposition parties. The SLFP is now an empty shell,” a senior SLFP minister said, adding that the real crisis would be when the government is out of power one day and there would not be a party left for the SLFPers. It is in this backdrop that a clash had taken place between trade union leaders of the governing party.
The clash had reportedly taken place at a party organized by Minister Basil Rajapaksa to the governing party members who organized a protest march on May 15th simultaneous to the protest organized by opposition parties and trade unions against the increased electricity tariffs. Head of the SLFP trade unions, Leslie Devendra had clashed with Siripala Amerasinghe who now functions as a coordinator for trade union affairs in the government.
Devendra was angry that a group affiliated to some government ministers was sending media releases and holding press conferences after ignoring the traditional SLFP trade unions.
Amerasinghe serves as the chairman of the Timber Corporation. He was a former JVP parliamentarian and the former head of the Inter Company Employees’ Union.
It is Amerasinghe who has been assigned the task of responding on behalf of the government to media statements issues by the JVP trade unions. Devendra has said that the SLFP trade union leaders have to now dance to the tune of JVPers who had killed Panditha and other SLFP trade union leaders.
However, the government is now in for another rude shock. The trade unions have once again met and decided that it was essential to continue with the campaign against the electricity tariff increase and to build on the momentum. The Coordinating Committee for a Joint Trade Union Alliance had met on Friday (31) and decided that a meeting should be held on the 7th together with all trade unions and movements that participated in the May 21st token strike to discuss the future course of action. The trade union leaders have agreed that the continuous attacks against certain heads of trade unions by the state is mainly due to the fear the Rajapaksa government has against a strong people’s agitation campaign mooted by the country’s trade union movement.
Head of the National Trade Union Center (NTUC), K. D. Lalkantha said that there are still many demands that have to be won and the trade union movement in the country has stepped out with a programme that has to now be further strengthened to create a massive people’s movement. “Victory could be achieved only through a people’s struggle,” he said, adding that the May 21st token strike was just the first step of a continuous campaign and that the Rajapaksa government was yet to witness the real force of the public.
Be that as it may, the Rajapaksa government in its usual fashion is now looking at quick fixes to further stifle the media in the country that is gagged in many ways.
The government feels that a media stifled with restrictions would not be able to help build a strong anti-government momentum in the country. The media code of ethics was mooted several months back, but there was a sudden silence following protests by the media.
However, following the self-immolation of Ven. Bowaththe Indrarathna Thero, the government is trying to use it as a scapegoat to push the draft bill of Media Code of Ethics.
A Draft Bill containing a Media Code of Ethics aimed at creating ‘a salutary media culture in the country’ will be tabled in Parliament for adoption in September, Mass Media and Information Minister Keheliya Rambukwella has said. The government information department quoted the Minister as saying that drafting of this Bill was completed and the proposals incorporated in this Bill have been submitted to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Media and political parties for their observations, including suggestions for suitable amendments.
Minister Rambukwella said that the actions of certain media institutions in the recent past had led to many problems and therefore it had become an urgent need to introduce a code of ethics for a good media culture.
He added that media has a responsibility to act as per laws and regulations of the country without creating problems for country, society or any religion. What Minister Rambukwella fails to comprehend is that laws and regulations should be applied to everyone equally and not only to the general public or the media. The Rajapaksa government instead of establishing law and order in the country, seems to be looking at ways of suppressing areas that could pose irritants on its path.
The current actions of the Rajapaksa government have not yet addressed the long-standing concerns of the international community.
Following the adoption of the second US backed resolution on Sri Lanka at the UNHRC in March this year, the US has been engaged in monitoring the progress made by the Rajapaksa government in implementing the clauses of the resolution and honouring its commitments made before the international community.
Representatives of the US government have been in constant contact with political parties as well as members of the civil society to monitor the government’s progress.
The Sunday Leader learns that the US is so far displeased that the Rajapaksa government has not shown any progress in moving forward even in the implementation of the recommendations in the Lessons Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC).
The worst is the effort taken by certain members of the government to tell the US officials of “progress” made by the government in the same manner it would address the Sri Lankan masses. It is no wonder that the US Country Reports on Terrorism 2012 released by the US State Department last week stated that counter terrorism cooperation and training with the United States in 2012 was limited, however, due to statutory and policy restrictions based on concerns about alleged past human rights abuses committed by Sri Lankan security forces.
“The Sri Lankan government claimed that it continued to uncover abandoned weapons and explosives in areas of the country formerly controlled by the LTTE. Although there were no known LTTE activities in Sri Lanka in 2012, the government asserted that peaceful protests at Jaffna University in November were organized by students trained by overseas LTTE supporters and made several arrests,” the report added.